The Americans Finale:
The Spies Who Loved Us
The Acclaimed FX Drama Series Offered Top-Notch Acting, Nuanced Plots And An Eerie Reflection of U.S. Politics, Then And Now
Elizabeth Jennings, played by Keri Russell (left) and Philip Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys (right) console daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) in a scene from The Americans, the critically acclaimed FX show. The final season ends May 30. Photo by: Patrick Harbron/FX
By Karen Weil
Modern Times Magazine
May 30, 2018 — “I would lose everything before I would betray my country.”
That’s what Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), says to her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), in the pilot episode of The Americans when the two debate whether life in the United States is worth it.
With May 30 being the series finale, fans of this amazingly good, taut drama will say goodbye to the Jennings family and all those in their orbit.
For the uninitiated, the Jennings live in suburban Washington, D.C. and seem like your average, all-American couple with two children and a perfectly fine home -- except that they aren’t.
Elizabeth and Philip are no less than Soviet spies living under deep cover.
Since debuting in 2013 on FX, the show has built a steady following, won a Critics Choice Award for Best Drama and garnered numerous Emmy nominations.
Created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg, the show was partially inspired by actual events: In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that 10 Russian sleeper agents were arrested in an operation known as The Illegals Program.
The Americans has struck a nerve for many reasons, the most obvious being its unsettling correlation to current events (i.e., whether in 2016 Russians worked to elect the man now in the Oval Office, possibly with his direct knowledge and blessing). Just five years ago, that seemed like the stuff of a second-rate spy novel.
The show begins in the early 1980s, as the Reagan era begins and the Cold War escalates.
The Jennings own a travel agency, but their real job is espionage. Both were born in the Motherland, but speak without the slightest trace of a Russian accent.
After their 9-to-5 gig ends, Elizabeth and Philip really get down to business obtaining information by any means necessary, including befriending or seducing contacts – and if need be, killing them in a ruthlessly efficient manner.
The charismatic pair leave a trail of bodies and broken hearts in their wake.
As it turns out, the Jennings’ neighbor is an FBI agent. Stan Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich), having done his own share of covert work, suspects early on that there’s something not quite right about his friendly neighbors. Nevertheless, he eventually forms a deep bond with Philip over beer, sports and marriage woes.
The Jennings’ good-natured youngest child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), suspects nothing, but teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) – who’s an old soul with an activist streak— senses her parents’ late-night work has nothing to do with a customer being stuck in Houston.
All glam/grim foreign intrigue aside, The Americans ultimately revolves around two vital themes: Family and loyalty.
Although some would consider the drama a companion piece to Showtime’s popular Homeland, The Americans perfectly fits in with two other groundbreaking shows featuring deeply flawed characters: Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Each show deals in façade, from 1960s ad whiz Don Draper stealing a soldier’s identity to Walter White morphing from mousy chemistry teacher to murderous meth kingpin in the 21st century.
Elizabeth and Phil ply their deadly trade sporting an array of wigs, eyewear and personas.
Flashbacks show how their hardscrabble childhoods in a post-war Soviet Union shaped them. As young KGB recruits who meet in the 1960s, their marriage itself is a construct, although they manage to fall in love in spite of themselves.
If Mad Men represents a declining American Dream and Breaking Bad its smoldering remains, The Americans deftly shows a superpower desperate to reclaim its glory days and succeeding on some levels (a renewed sense of patriotism and booming economy), while failing on others (the 1987 stock market crash and Iran Contra scandal being the two biggest examples).
1987 is a pivotal year for the final season: The Soviet Union is now lead by a likable reformer named Mikhail Gorbachev, whose bold plans further rattle the Jennings’ belief system.
In less capable hands, The Americans would be farcical -- but the writing and slow-burn direction never fail to impress or astonish. Episodes offer no easy answers, happy endings, grandiose speeches or fan-service scenes.
Above all, it’s the acting that makes this show unforgettable. The Welsh-born Rhys brings a special vulnerability to Philip, a man who started out as fiercely devoted to communism but has now come to greatly appreciate the American way of life, even as he struggles to keep his business afloat.
Russell – formerly known as the winsome Felicity in the late 1990s – masterfully portrays the tightly wound Elizabeth, a woman who is fearless in her missions, no matter how much each one corrodes her humanity.
Taylor infuses Paige with a quiet intensity that works perfectly for a character whose fate becomes inextricably linked with that of her parents.
Emmerich is brilliant as Stan, a man whose own sense of righteousness and at times reckless decisions may destroy his career.
Special praise is also reserved for Annet Mahendru, Margo Martindale, Costa Ronin and Alison Wright for the complexity they brought to their characters.
Mahendru and Ronin were stellar as well-intended Russian agents, while Martindale played KGB handler Claudia with a folksy menace (and won two Emmys for it).
Wright shone as an open-hearted FBI secretary who fell for Philip’s alter-ego “Clark.”
It’s anyone’s guess how The Americans’ final episode, with the ironic title of Start, will end.
One powerful lesson you take from the show is this: No one is left unscathed by people for whom ideology is everything. In the end, the revolution consumes its own.
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